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Death of a Nation
Robert M. Utley, a prolific chronicler of the American West, wrote in the preface to his masterful biography Sitting Bull: The Life and Times of an American Patriot, that “it is exceedingly difficult to write the biography of another person of another culture, especially one that in its essentials no longer exists.” Even current writers struggle to present their biographic subjects in the culture of their own times; many are pulled into the orbit of revisionist history, and others pass judgment based on contemporary standards and modern conventions.
In the pages of newly released The Earth is All that Lasts: Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and the Last Stand of the Great Sioux Nation, Mark Lee Gardner offers readers a dual biography of these legendary Sioux warriors solidly within the context of their times and their culture. Gardner is known as an authority on the cowboy West and has made frequent appearances on PBS, the History Channel, and National Public Radio. His previous books include the award-winning Rough Riders: Theodore Roosevelt, His Cowboy Regiment, and the Immortal Charge Up San Juan Hill; Shot all to Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape; and To Hell on a Fast Horse: The Untold Story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett.
In his latest work, Gardner offers readers a well-paced narrative history that traces the lives of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse from boyhood, through the Lakota Sioux Wars with the United States, to the controversies surrounding the deaths of the two chiefs. But there is a soft focus to much of this narrative as the two men had little in common beyond the independence they prized and their fierce defense of their homeland. The story in sharper focus here is of the decline, disintegration, and destruction of the Sioux Nation.
Boys to Warriors
Gardner begins his story of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull by recounting coming-of-age episodes in their lives. Among the Lakota Sioux—Crazy Horse was of the Oglala tribe, Sitting Bull of the Húnkpapa—boys matured quickly in a hierarchical society with well-defined roles. The tribe’s survival depended on men who could hunt, protect the people from hostile tribes, and defend their homelands.
Foremost in a Lakota boy’s preparation for adulthood was instilling the importance of the four virtues of Lakota men: bravery, generosity, endurance, and wisdom. Bravery always ranked first . . . And from an early age, Lakota boys were expected to be like men . . .
Their culture and political system revolved around the individual deeds of its men—coups counted, horses stolen, captives taken. It was why warriors took great care to keep track of their coups, even documenting each one with witnesses . . . And the braver the man, the more coups recorded, opening a path to leadership within one’s band or tribe—if that’s what he desired.
Given this culture, Gardner’s extended treatment of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull counting coup, or humiliating their adversaries, and waging intertribal warfare against their Indian enemies—and later against European Americans—provides an explanation for each warrior’s rapid rise to prominence in their bands. It also provides an insight into the warrior ethos of the Lakota Sioux. Anthony R. McGinnis, the author of Counting Coup and Cutting Horses: Intertribal Warfare on the Northern Plains, 1738-1889, argues this warrior culture made the Sioux the most dominant of the Plains Indian tribes and resulted in a “Sioux Suzerainty” in lands covering a swath of present-day northwest Nebraska, most of the Dakotas, northeastern Wyoming, and part of Montana. The Sioux would prove ferocious in defending the lands of their dominion.
Much of The Earth is All that Lasts focuses on warfare in the period 1851-1877, and especially the pivotal years 1876-1877. This is not a sweeping military history on par with Peter Cozzen’s award-wining The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West. Rather, Gardner focuses on the Lakota Sioux and narrows the scope of his narrative to describe their attacks on invading whites and their war to defend Indian lands and their people against the US army troopers—referenced too frequently in the text as “Long Knives,” because of the cavalry sabers they carried.
“The challenge to fighting the Long Knives had always been figuring out a way to draw an inferior force away from a post or separate it from a larger command, where it could be surrounded and overwhelmed.” Gardner, for example, describes the epic Battle of the Little Big Horn in very broad strokes (a far more detailed and authoritative account can be found in James Donovan’s A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Big Horn) and yet captures enough of the fight to show how the warriors kept the whole of the Seventh Cavalry from massing the regiment in force. The author also describes how Crazy Horse led Cheyenne and Sioux warriors to divide and isolate the companies fighting under Custer, and then annihilated that battalion in detail.
The Battle of the Little Big Horn in June 1876, however, was a pyrrhic victory. The Sioux were already slipping from the height of their national power and Gardner describes how the great Sioux nation collapsed in the year that followed. After Custer’s stunning defeat, “in a climate of national mourning and outrage,” the Grant Administration abandoned its peace policy and adopted a hard line. The US Army—under commanding General Sherman and Military Department of the Missouri commander General Sheridan—was ordered to solve the “Indian problem.”
These Union Civil War generals who learned how to wage total war in that conflict, now directed a scorched earth campaign against the Lakota and their allies. The Great Sioux War of 1876-1877 was fought throughout the winter and the army—better supplied with food, fodder, and clothing—pressed the Indians relentlessly by tracking them through the snow, attacking their winter camps, forcing the bands to flee, and burning their abandoned lodges, food, and clothing.
Some tribal chiefs, worn by war and dispirited by the desperate plight of their people, signed away their rights to the Black Hills and the previously unceded Indian Territory with a new treaty. Now “the antitreaty bands were more vulnerable than ever. Forced to split up because of limited resources of game, fuel, and forage, each village or lodge could be hunted down and picked off piecemeal.”
Peace With Death
Ravaged by war and privation, the Native Americans slowly made their way to Indian agencies and surrendered. By the spring of 1877, more than 4,000 Native Americans were counted in the ledgers at two Dakota Territory Indian agencies. Crazy Horse and his band were among them. Sitting Bull and the remnants of his band fled more than four hundred miles into Canada.
Crazy Horse would not find peace at the agency as his appearance there invited both jealousy and suspicion among other Sioux leaders. He was dogged by rumors of plans to murder and make war with enough of a whiff of truth to prompt the army to order his arrest and confinement. Gardner’s tale of the tension and apprehension surrounding the Oglala chief’s attempted arrest is well told and he briefly describes the melee that erupted as Crazy Horse fought his would-be jailers. In the violent struggle, a soldier killed Crazy Horse with a bayonet thrust. Author Thomas Powers, in his engrossing The Killing of Crazy Horse, argues the Oglala chief’s death in 1877 was a crime—with abundant evidence of pre-meditated murder.
Soon after Crazy Horse’s death most of his followers made their way to Sitting Bull’s camp in Canada. But Canada proved no refuge for the Sioux. Gardner describes how the Sioux trickled back into US territory and made their way to the Indian agencies, destitute, hungry, “all in tattered clothes . . . and some naked.” In mid-summer of 1881, Sitting Bull led the remains of his band, just thirty-five families, to Fort Buford, Dakota Territory to be made prisoners of war by army officers. In 1883, Sitting Bull and his band were released and sent to the Standing Rock Agency near Fort Yates, Dakota.
In The Earth is All That Lasts, Gardner tells the story of how the Sitting Bull achieved something of a celebrity status after his confinement, touring the country and even visiting the White House. But, like Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull was still viewed with suspicion, even after years of peace. In 1890, he was wrongly associated with promoting the Ghost Dance— a spiritual movement centered on the imminent arrival of an Indian Messiah—embraced by the Western Indian tribes.
Fearing an uprising across the reservations, authorities ordered Sitting Bull’s arrest. Gardner describes how Native Sioux police bungled the plan to apprehend the aging chief at his home and the attempted arrest drew a crowd of Sitting Bull sympathizers. In the struggle that followed, Sitting Bull was shot to death, native police and agency Indians were killed and wounded, and several members of Sitting Bull’s extended family were murdered. The police and their relatives mutilated Sitting Bull’s body.
In the pages of The Earth is All That Lasts the author offers readers a narrative rooted in broad research and solid primary sources. Unlike some derivative pop histories (the lamentable Killing Crazy Horse by Bill O’Reilly comes to mind), this work includes more than four hundred notes of attribution and explanation, and Gardner’s sources include original manuscripts, personal papers, oral histories, government publications and previously published works. Gardner has very wisely drawn deeply on his primary sources—including oral histories transcribed in the 1920s and 1930s—to let readers see history through the eyes of those who lived it.
Those oral histories were elicited by researchers from Native Americans who were young men and women in the time of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, or members of their immediate and extended families. Some recalled stories told by their fathers. Some told stories of their own. And some told stories of the soldiers coming and the great bonfires that destroyed their homes, food, and clothing—everything they possessed except the earth.